Remembering failed engineering

By Razib Khan | June 26, 2012 9:46 pm

When I was growing up in the 80s and 90s “hippies” were figures of amusement and the 1960s was all The Wonder Years. As a child you’re not told of the “dark side,” the true history, which may seem disturbing. When I was in college I met someone who did clue me in to some of the more “adult” aspects of the 1960s they had experienced through their recollections. For example, this man had been to the original Woodstock. While there he had taken a fancy to a young girl (underage), something her brother did not approve of. So he chased my friend down, smacked him upside the head, dragged him into the bushes, and raped him (also, I don’t recall seeing the interracial group sex protesting anti-miscegenation laws he told me about in Eyes on the Prize).

My own interest in history is of the more esoteric and antique kind. More Byzantium than the Beats. But as I grow older I am more and more aware of the lacunae in my knowledge, and the childlike vision of the 1960s which I unconsciously continue to hold. This is why more fully fleshed out pictures of the “Summer of Love,” such as can be found in this July’s Vanity Fair is of particular interest. In this way the past can become real, without the antiseptic tint of our media or the nostalgia of the baby boomers.

In many ways the cultural revolution of the 1960s made the world as it is today. But in many other ways, which we’d like to forget, the 1960s led to the excesses of the 1970s. For example, Retired Horace Mann Teacher Admits to Sex With Students:

The era had not yet come when a teacher would be viewed automatically with suspicion for inviting a student to his home. Sexual scandals in institutions like the Roman Catholic Church and Pennsylvania State University were still decades away. Mr. Lin himself said he had acted “occasionally out of impulse,” adding, “In those days, the ’60s and ’70s, things were different.”

Obviously self-serving. But from a profile of the North American Man-Boy Love Association (N.A.M.B.L.A., not NAMBLA):

It’s a story that began unremarkably enough. In 1978, NAMBLA was just another oddball sexual group proposing another oddball, radical philosophy: Kids should have more rights, particularly the right to have sex with whomever they please. Age should not be a consideration in anything, especially sex and love, and age-of-consent laws should be repealed. It was a more permissive time, a time before AIDS, and during NAMBLA’s infancy in Boston (it would later move its headquarters to New York), the group enjoyed the support of a vocal minority in the gay community, who believed that attacks on boy-lovers were veiled attacks on all homosexuals. To NAMBLA’s greater surprise, it found that even many straight people were willing to discuss adult-youth relationships without resorting to name calling and finger wagging.

“The ’70s were an incredible time,” says Socrates. “We were at a time when things were changing, when our voices could be heard. We began to believe the rhetoric that the revolution was coming, that we were going to create a free society.”

We live in an age when activists for the rights of homosexuals have become positively bourgeois. I’m skeptical that a prominent gay intellectual would do what Allen Ginsberg did and to some extent defend NAMBLA’s right to exist. “Progress” does “reverse.” The present is always privileged.

Addendum: Admission to Baby Boomers: “your music” will certainly echo through the generations when the last digital copies of ours have long been forgotten (with honorable exceptions).


Comments (16)

  1. RafeK

    I also grew up in the 80’s and 90’s the key difference being the hippy subculture wasn’t a thing of the past or a few odd freaks for me, it was the culture I was raised in. This is the home where I grew up so this post strikes an interesting nerve for me.

    The hippie sub culture may have receded but there are still advocates of if today. The process of seeing through the veil about hippie nostalgiais is akin to my process of seeing through the veil of the hippie sub culture in my early teens. As young child doing the rainbow festival, barter fair and oregon country fair circuit was mostly great, fun music, tasty food, arts and crafts, lots of kids to play with and highly permissive adults.

    As teen the darker side of subculture became a lot more obvious I was sexual propositioned numerous times by adults while between the ages of 12-14. I remember very clearly the last time I went to the barter fair at 14, walking by a drum circle at night while two men in their 50s were groping a highly drugged out naked girl who appeared to be my age, while nobody seemed else seemed to notice.

    It was around that time that most of my friends were starting to experiment with marijuana and mushrooms. After that incident I made an explicit choice not to use substances.

    In another telling incident from around the same time. I remember clearly a young couple who preached the values of free love, I remember the young man being romantic towards other women and then I remember him beating his girlfriend when he found out she was doing the same.

    There are still things I really admire about hippie culture, the reverence for nature and the ideology of trying to find a way to live that is closer to the land and closer to our inherent natures, but the lesson become obvious very early for me that our inherent natures were not as innocent and non-destructive as hippies wanted to believe.

  2. RafeK

    The other interesting thing about having grown up as hippie kid is the near ubiquity of various stuff that used to be very strong hippy in group signals, like shopping at health food stores and farmers markets, using naturopathic medicine and chiropractic, driving or at least desiring electric/hybrid/biodiesel vehicles, or giving your kids very non traditional names. At least on the west coast.

  3. Brel

    The 1960’s were when the past started to stop being a foreign country, in a lot of ways. I think it’s because there wasn’t just a revival of what Razib has called “pre-agricultual” values, such as a rejection of monogamy and monotheism, but also the realization of values that could only be possible in a world with industrialization–namely, cosmopolitanism and peace in large parts of the world. In the old tribalism, one didn’t have to be stifled by monogamy and strict religion like in agricultural societies, but there were no opportunities for real cosmopolitanism. Each tribe had to fear enemy tribes. And there was no easy way to convert to religions practiced halfway around the world from where one was living.

    But at the same time this revolutionary upwelling was immersed in, and hampered by, traditional agricultural values in a way that’s easy to forget today. Razib’s anecdote is a very good example: the girl’s brother did what he felt was necessary as a man to prevent his charge (his female relative) from being taken advantage of by other men. I could easily imagine such impulsive brutishness in response to a threat to male authority playing out in Pakistan or other such places today. Yet they were all attending Woodstock, the chief venue in which the rebellion against such values was taking place!

    One can see how these sorts of internal contradictions would be a tremendous strain on the society undergoing them. Indeed violence soared in pretty much every Western country during the 1960’s, according to Steven Pinker’s data in The Better Angels of Our Nature. Whereas it had been falling for centuries before that. Incidentally, Razib, are you going to review that book? I’m particularly curious about your thoughts on Norbert Elias’s theory of civilizing processes that Pinker discusses in the chapter on crime. It’s the only sociology I’ve ever seen that’s worth anything.

  4. Charles Nydorf

    I witnessed the 60’s through the prisms of my private interests: physics, structural anthropology and math. The physics that I was exposed to was still pretty stodgy (maybe it still is) but I have a soft spot for condensed matter which was, and is, pretty lively. A lot of interested people left physics and brought their creativity to computer science. Structural anthropology made an interesting start but ran ahead of cognate disciplines and has stalled since then. Math had some very exciting developments associated with algebraic topology. Grothendieck style math later became less fashionable but the most productive mathematicians have continued to work in this vein.
    I might add that linguistics was in ferment and by the 1970’s, the promising new avenues of pragmatics and sociolinguistics were being explored. Unfortunately pragmatics had no place in the orthodox generative program and was overshadowed.
    Speaking of breakthroughs that went against what was seen as the main current of advance in a field, I should mention Mitchell’s work on oxidative phosphorylation. He got the Nobel prize but his work did not have the generally transfomative influence that he envisioned.

  5. Karl Zimmerman

    This post reminds me of the section in Stephen Pinker’s new(ish) book hypothesizing why crime rose in the 1960s. It’s understandable that as a counter-reaction to the hyper-conformist 1950s there were those in counterculture who wanted to question all established wisdom. Sadly, subcultures with few limits are great places for predatory sociopaths to hide – or even for relatively normal people with a few “darker impulses” to think it’s okay to act on them, because nothing they feel can be wrong.

    I obviously don’t ascribe to such a viewpoint. On a related tangent, I’ve been a vegetarian for 19 years now, and a vegan for 15 years. My retention of this lifestyle goes back to the ethical logic developed by Peter Singer (although I thought it out independently). Most everyone I knew who became one at around the same time as I (my brother included) has gone back to meat-eating. I genuinely find it perplexing why someone would want to, so I often ask, and when any rational answer is given (admittedly, probably a rationalization of an unconsciously made decision), it’s usually something along the line of “there were so many life experiences I was missing out on.” To me this attitude makes little sense, because it’s astoundingly self-centered to think that I as an individual should experience everything in the range of human sensation, regardless of the consequences of said actions.

    It seems like, however, this was the basic philosophy of the hippie movement.

  6. Mark

    “I’m skeptical that a prominent gay intellectual would do what Allen Ginsberg did and to some extent defend NAMBLA’s right to exist.”

    Camille Paglia did exactly that on in the 90s. The article was titled something to the effect of “The Purity of Allen Ginsberg’s Boy Love.” I can find references to it on Google but Salon seems to have taken it down.

    Having said that, this may be one of those situations where Camille Paglia is the exception that proves the rule…

  7. such as a rejection of monogamy and monotheism

    confused. when did i say that monogamy was agricultural? on the contrary! also not sure about the monotheism part. can you point me to the post where i said this???

  8. j mct

    Interesting story about Woodstock. One of the basic facts about Woodstock, is that if everyone who said they were at Woodstock, actually were there, it would have had an attendance of about 50M. Maybe this guy actually went.

    Secondly, the 60’s were when the intellectually fashionable people (except for a very small vanguard, beatniks, maybe some professors, I never read God and Man at Yale, but I bet that is what it is about), stopped being Aristotelian virtuecrats and became Epicureans, who’s measure of the good life is pleasant/unpleasant. It was also the heyday, in terms of social impact, of the most influential moral philosopher of the second half of the 20th century in the US, Hugh Hefner. In 1960, on social issues, everyone in politics was like Rick Santorum, in fact he’d have been thought a bit of a squish.

    Lastly, per art and culture and style, the 60’s were not all Jefferson Airplane and Jimmy Hendrix. The number one song in 1969 was this . Most of the 60’s, culturally, didn’t happen until the 70’s, and lots of people did not like it when they got a whiff of it.

  9. toto

    This post reminds me of the section in Stephen Pinker’s new(ish) book hypothesizing why crime rose in the 1960s.

    I thought the baby boom explained a lot of it, as well as much of the cultural shifts post-WW2?

    More teens and tweens gives you hippie culture and high crime. More old farts gives you the Tea Party and low(-ish) crime.

    Anybody has a link to birth rate (or even better, proportion of youths <20 in the population) over a long period of time? Google data seems to stop at 1960.

  10. John Emerson

    “God and Man at Yale” was 1951. Buckley basically didn’t like secularists.

    What I’ve noticed is that the redefinition of sexual roles was something like this:

    Before about 1965, quite strict rules for everyone except in a few urban areas (and California I suppose) , and tolerance policies there: in some places a lot of things were OK if no one knew about it. Even in SF and NYC, though, gay men were arrested just for having sex. (I went to an advanced college starting 1964, and even there there were strict rules about male and female even being in the same dorm room together, though everyone sneaked around the rules. One guy was expelled for openly violating this rule in 1964. But by 1965 that was all in the past.)

    In my MN hometown, my 18-y-o brother-in-law-to-be was jailed for a month ca. 1968 for having sex with a girl his age when they thought her mother was out of town.

    At the same time, the tolerance policy extended to student-teacher relationships. Two students I knew married teachers upon graduation (one of them is still married and seems happy.) I was checked out by 2 or 3 male faculty, though I wasn’t interested and it was all very civil. One female teacher had a thing for younger guys.

    In succeeding years (up to about 1975-80) there was a lot of that outside schools; my younger female friends have testified to it.

    This extended to my HS in rural MN ca 1975-80. One girl married the football coach upon graduation. They’re still married and she got a law degree while she was married.

    After 1980 or so there came a taboo on underage and different-age marriages and relationships. Before that the age of consent was as low as 12 in some states (not the ones you’d guess, Iowa and Hawaii were two). The age of consent was tacitly about marriage though I think, not about having fun, and was low to accommodate rural cultures.

    1965-1975 or so, there was a general loosening, including the tolerance of sex with underage kids. When things clamped down ca. 1980 or whenever, it was uneven; some areas returned to the old code, at least officially (lots of sneaking around in the South) whereas liberal areas gave almost total freedom to adults and a lesser degree of freedom to teenagers, while quite strictly tabooing relationships across the 18-year line (there’s even an adapter with a 3-year window so that an 18 year old can have relations with a 20 year old, but not a 22 year old.)

    There’s also a new taboo against wide age gaps. A lot of women are offended by the idea of a 45-year-old / 20 year old marriage. (Demi Moore went the other direction just for the public)

  11. Darkseid

    does anyone have any insight into the assertions Steve makes here? particularly the last line:
    “Well, we can’t have people thinking this is a gay thing (because it is).”
    I’ve never seen any data to back this up but it seems it might be true.

  12. This is a really interesting topic for me because I grew up in the 90s and the early 00s. For me, growing up, I think ‘hippy culture’ was held up as this sort of predecessor to what we were going through. This type of thinking was perpetuated by guys like Eddie Vedder, who at the time were reluctant faces of the American youth. And more than that, for my parents, the way the culture–‘grunge’– in which I was emerged harkened back a bit to their days growing up around their hippy older siblings and such (e.g., I had long hair and wore beat up old clothes, which my father never failed to refer to as ‘hippy shit’; he hated my music–the honorable exception linked above was one that he particularly despised–and he really hated the fact that I had contempt for nearly everything around me).

    I look back now as I’m a little older and more mature and I have to wonder: how great were the years of my youth? Certainly the nihilism of the day has pervaded into my adult life and there are things about growing up in the time I did that I just can’t shake.

    And on a different note, when I first started boxing my trainer used to play Jimi Hendrix all day, on repeat. I asked him why and he stated that Jimi’s music was the only good thing about his younger days that he remembers fondly… because he spent 12 years in jail for assaulting a police officer at a concert. I don’t know how true this is, but it always stuck with me as being indicative of what the 60s may have really been like.

  13. John Emerson

    Everything you read or sea about the Sixties has an ax to grind — whether it’s pro, con, or just egocentric. People shouldn’t be too confident that they understand it — it was 5 years or more (1967-72 was the peak) and involved tens of millions of people. The personal experiences of the dark side of the sixties given above square with mine, but there was a lot more than that.

    Wolfe’s Electric Koolaid Acid Test might be a definitive statement of the anti-sixties view, but oddly enough, some kids read it and don’t realize this. They think it’s cool.

  14. Sandgroper

    Kurt Cobain was a Shonen Knife fan.

  15. ackbark

    The principal thing about the 1960s was the generation gap, there has been much talk and writing about everything in 1960s, lots of books about the Baby Boomers, but really nothing focusing on the generation gap itself, as far as I can tell.

    It was the high level of mutual disjunction and resentment that ended up giving us Richard Nixon, notional hedonism and key parties.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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